Archive for October, 2000

Networks Blow Coverage of Texas Educational Achievement

Sunday, October 29th, 2000

“…they ran their heads very hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit the circumstances to the ideas, instead of trying to extract ideas from circumstances.” — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.

Please forgive the citation of yet one more poll in an already poll-saturated season. Pew Research recently asked a presumably representative cross section of 515 Americans “Who do you think most newspaper reporters and TV journalists1 want to see win the presidential election: George W. Bush or Al Gore?” By a margin of 47% to 23% Americans believe that Gore was the favorite of the national media.

Americans need not be a perceptive group to divine this conclusion. CBS News, in particular, has been conspicuous in its bias. CBS belatedly concluded that it should have extended the coverage of the first night of the Republican Convention by one hour. To compensate for this oversight they extended the first night of coverage at the Democratic convention. CBS News no longer even feels the necessity to appear evenhanded.

The latest example of TV news partisanship is the coverage of the recent “issue paper” released by the RAND Corporation two weeks before the election. The short issue paper questioned the extent of the “Texas Miracle” in educational achievement, especially among minority students.

The evening news and the morning news programs of the major networks led off with the story of the RAND issue paper with the implication that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Texas education had not recently improved. The recent release from RAND was not put into context and little mention was made of the far more extensive and pro-Texas RAND report by different researchers. TV news programs had largely ignored this previous report when it was released in July. On the other hand, the new issue paper was offered as dramatic new evidence that devastates Governor George Bush’s education credentials.

Of course the truth is far more complex. The validity of a report is not measured by its length, but even the authors of the recent issue paper from RAND Corporation, would concede that the earlier 200-plus page report by Grissmer et al. is far more extensive and complete than the 14-page issue paper recently released by Klein et al. just last week. Indeed, Klein et al. warn that their issue paper is based on scores from 20 schools from “one part of Texas.” The schools “were not selected to be representative of this region let alone Texas as a whole.” Hence, the TV news programs were focusing on a speculative report that was not even based on a representative sample of students.

The July report, by contrast, was based on analysis of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests between 1990 and 1996. In that report, Grissmer et al. of RAND concluded that “…some states are doing far better than others in making achievement gains and in elevating their students’ performance compared with students of similar racial and socioeconomic background in other states. Texas and Indiana are high performers on both these counts. One group of states led by North Carolina and Texas … boasts gains twice as great as the national average.”

In fairness, the July report observed that gains were made because of bipartisan emphasis on making the necessary reforms. Part of the period studied covered the terms of the previous Governor Ann Richards and the current Governor Bush. Moreover, the bipartisan educational effort included important work by the Texas legislature. Apparently a lot can be achieved if one does not worry about assigning credit. This is the sort of bipartisan approach that Bush claims he is embracing.

What has happened since 1996? The NAEP test can not yet reveal conclusive information. Although the NAEP tests are widely regarded as good measures of academic performance, they do suffer from some important limitations. The NAEP test are not conducted every year, nor in every grade, nor at every school. Therefore, they cannot be used as a means to hold specific schools accountable for specific results. They are much better at measuring long-term trends than in making up-to-date assessments.

With bipartisan support, Texas instituted the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests to monitor student achievement and to provide accountability. These tests measure reading and mathematics in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10.

It is in these TAAS tests that students have demonstrated the greatest improvement in test scores, the “Texas miracle.” So what’s the problem? The problem is that although NAEP test given in 1998 for 4th and 8th graders shows significant improvement, the improvements were not as dramatic as in the TAAS test. Hence, the recent issue paper authored by Klein et al. speculates that perhaps there is something wrong with the TAAS tests. Klein et al. go on to speculate that since the TAAS tests are used for high-stakes school accountability, the test results may reflect an emphasis on teaching to the test.

In some sense, teaching to the test is not necessarily a bad thing. If the test measures learned skills, teaching to the test means learning those skills. Even more importantly, teachers may make an extra effort to remind students to get a good night’s sleep before the test. Teachers may give sample problems in a test-like environment to relieve the anxiety of students through de-sensitization. There are many thing teachers can do to help students prepare for test taking, strategies that middle class students may have learned earlier from parents.

Any school administrator will tell you that the best way to make your school system look bad is to have tests that measure skills and knowledge that do not match the schools’ specific curriculum. The greater success of students, especially minority students, on the TAAS tests may simply mean the Texas curriculum more closely matches the TAAS test than the NAEP test.

The Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) are no less immune than the TAAS test from teachers and school systems placing strong emphasis on test preparation and focusing on the skills and knowledge covered by the tests. Given the attention paid to these scores by parents and school administrators, SATs also provide high-stakes accountability. However, if SAT scores in other school districts increased as much as the TAAS scores did in Texas, it would represent a cause for celebration not consternation.

As Chester Finn, former assistant US Secretary of Education points out, “NAEP alone shows commendable gains by Texas kids and schools — and Texas minority kids at or near the front of the pack among minority kids nationwide. This is solid accomplishment that would deserve praise even if Texas had no state test of its own.”2 Indeed, when compared to California, a state that faces similar challenges with a large immigrant population, the Texas results look even more impressive.

Perhaps most disturbing is the suggestion by Klein et al. in the recent issue paper that perhaps low-income students did too well on the TAAS test. Privacy considerations make it impossible to know the precise economic status of students. However, there is too often a correlation between lower academic achievement at schools and the fraction of students on the free/or reduced lunch program. The more students on the program, the lower student achievement typically is.

The results of the TAAS tests did not conform to this “soft bigotry of low expectations” and were, therefore, in the minds of Klein et al. not credible. The test scores for economically poor students were higher than Klein expected. It is undoubted true that teachers at previously low-performing schools feel the most pressure to help their students improve their achievement. The most plausible explanation for higher performance of lower-income students is that demanding accountability from schools improves student performance. Klein et al. were not quite willing to consider this explanation.

As a scholarly effort, the work of Klein et al. reaches, at best, the level of an internal report summarizing incomplete work in progress. The Grissmer et al. report released in July, by contrast, represents a serious professional, independently peer-reviewed publication. The release of the Klein et al. issue paper two weeks before the election was at best premature and at worst will prove to be an embarrassment for RAND. To avoid the appearance of partisanship next time, the non-partisan RAND Corporation ought to make sure there is at least one non-Democrat participant3 in a controversial study criticizing the programs of a Republican, especially a study who’s timing is so close to an election.

The question of how much academic achievement has improved in Texas is a very legitimate and important area of academic inquiry and of news coverage. However, the excessive attention devoted to the speculations of this issue paper based on an admittedly non-representative data sample in the waning days of this presidential campaign is a clear measure of the desperation TV journalists feel in anticipation of potential of a Bush victory.

1 TV journalist is someting of an oxymoron.
2 Interview in National Review Online, 2000.
3 The National Review Online (A Conservative Magazine) reports that the registrar of voters in California has confirmed that all the authors of this report are registered Democrats.

Peace Not In Sight

Saturday, October 21st, 2000

“Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them…We will not give up a single grain of soil of Palestine, from Haifa, and Jaffa, and Acre, and Mulabbas [Petah Tikva] and Salamah, and Majdal [Ashkelon], and all the land, and Gaza, and the West Bank…” — Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya, Fatwa Council, on Palestinian Authority Television, October 14, 2000. (See the Middle East Media and Research Institute.)

The irony is clear and poignant and not lost on those that have learned the history of the formation of the modern state of Israel. When the United Nations created the state of Israel in 1948, the area was divided into a Jewish and an Arab state, Jordan. The Jewish state was substantially smaller than even Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea was twice as large as it is now and Jerusalem was under the control of Arabs. In other words, if the Arabs had just accepted the 1948 situation, they would have had far more territory than they do now. Fifty years of strife could have been avoided.

Instead, the armies of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, believing in the superiority of numbers, immediately attacked the fledging state. The combination of disorganization and distrust between the Arab states and the bravery of the Israeli Defense Forces allowed Israel to win its War for Independence. The borders after that Israeli victory included more of the West Bank of the Jordan River and most importantly it included Jerusalem.

In 1967, after continued border violence, the Israelis took six days to seize the Golan Heights and prevented the Syrians from lobbing artillery into Israel from the high ground bordering the Sea of Galilee. In the same six days, Israel created land buffers with Jordan and Egypt by capturing the entire West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula.

It has taken decades to reach some accommodation. Anwar Sadat realized that there was no percentage for the Egyptian people in continued belligerence with Israel and made peace. In return for this peace, Egypt received the Sinai back from Israel and Sadat was rewarded with bullets from Muslim extremists. King Hussein of Jordan, never a firebrand, also made an accommodation with Israel. Jordan’s claims to the West Bank were waived in favor of a separate Palestinian state. The idea of a separate Palestinian State, free of Jordan, gained in currency only after the 1967 War.

The key to the peace with Israel for Jordan and Egypt was that these states recognized that Israel has a rightful and permanent place in the Middle East. Once that fundamental tenet was truly accepted, peace negotiations proceeded rather quickly.

By contrast and despite the Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian followers have never really accepted Israel. Vitriolic anti-Semitism in state-controlled Palestinian media is just one example of this recalcitrance. The refusal by the Palestinians to really recognize Israel is evidenced by the fact that they teach youngsters in Palestinian schools with Middle East maps showing no Israel. The true intentions of Arafat were further demonstrated by his actions following the recent Israeli peace proposal. Israeli Prime Minister Barak offered a settlement granting far more to Palestinians than any previous Israeli proposal. Arafat refused to even make a counter offer. Arafat sent Palestinian youths into the streets to confront Israeli soldiers with rocks and the occasional automatic weapon.

It is not clear whether Yasser Arafat does not have the leadership qualities necessary to persuade fellow Palestinians that peace with Israel is necessary and desirable or whether he just does not want peace. No matter how many times an American President invites Arafat to the White House, no matter how conciliatory an Israeli government is, unless Arafat grows into more than just one more street thug and gang leader, peace will prove impossible. It is the Palestinian Arabs who will suffer the most.

Lessons from Venice

Sunday, October 15th, 2000

“And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life haith reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great has passed away.”
William Wordsworth, On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic , 1807.

Venezia, Italia, October, 2000. Venice in October is pleasantly cool and devoid of the pressing intensity of international crowds which swarm the island city like locusts in the summer. While still murky, the waters of the canal lack their summer odor. The gradual onset of the quiet of winter serves as a metaphor for the decline of this few square kilometers of land along the Adriatic Coast from economic and cultural domination to amusement park status. There is more than a touch of sadness and remorse in Venice, the queen of cities, that is now reduced to a quaint tourist attraction invaded by both McDonald’s and Burger King. Five hundred years ago, Venice dominated Occidental economics and culture. Venice is now an echo of itself, retailing glimpses of its past greatness to largely uninformed tourists.

The dominance of Venice was more than just a consequence of geography. Certainly, it was protected from invasion by its location at the center of a lagoon off the European coast. Certainly, Venice was conveniently situated to as act as a middleman between Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the riches of the East. However, in many ways, Venice’s greatness rested in its unique government.

Roughly three hundred patricians ruled the city by appointing a ruling council of ten that controlled executive functions. The famous doges of Venice were primarily figureheads whose influence was proportional to their intelligence and persuasiveness. More importantly, Venice established the necessary infrastructure for a prosperous commercial society. Law limited fraudulent transactions, while an agency of government regulated weights and measures. Courts to mediate disputes were established. This should serve as a reminder to Libertarians that free markets do not necessarily arise spontaneously, but can be nurtured by government institutions.

Venice’s gradual decline was precipitated by its loss of a monopoly on Eastern trade as the Dutch and others found alternative routes to the Orient. The Venetians did not adapt and inevitably loss its military and economic power. In addition, they devoted far too many resources to maintaining a military dominance over neighbors.

The United States in the latter half of the twentieth century has found itself in cultural and economic ascendancy. Its geographic isolation between two oceans protected it at its inception. Its relatively free economy permitted a shift from an agricultural to industrial economy. Continued dominance and success depends on the ability of the United States to lead the world in the Internet-linked, knowledge based economy.

In this new economy, the United States enjoys only the advantages of economic flexibility and entrepreneurship. These advantages do not depend on natural resources or geographical advantages. Even small countries can play an important part in this new economy. Supportive tax and regulatory codes and American creative culture can maintain the American head start.

Neither Venice nor the United States is guaranteed perpetual dominance. It is only by continued adaptation to a changing economic environment that the United States will flourish. It is quite possible that this period could mark a new ascendancy for the United Stated or the beginning of its gradual decline.

Note: Venice could have become as economically aggressive as Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is heartening for Venetians to see Venice grasping at the new economy. This change is evident in a small shop barely visible on the west tern side of Campo de San Stefano.

As you walk into the modest shop you pass five meters through a narrow corridor. The corridor empties into a large room populated by more than forty Gateway computers connected to the Internet via a T1 connection. For $7.00/hour, you can browse the Internet and send and receive e-mail. Phones on the wall will connect you to international numbers at $0.25/minute. This is in sharp contrast to the $3.00 per minute rate at the unresponsive, but more ostentatious, American Express office a short distance away. If Venice is to be more than a tourist attraction, it will be lead by the same spirit that created the Internet Cafe.

The Sea Change Caused by RU-486

Saturday, October 7th, 2000

The recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to permit doctors to prescribe RU-486 as a “morning-after” abortion drug conspicuously marks an important point in the Pro-Life / Pro-Choice debate. Actually RU-486 sounds more like an old Intel computer chip than a name associated with an important cultural event. The debate now moves from a government context to a social context.Regular readers will recall that this particular Conservative has argued that the Pro-Life people have properly framed the abortion question. At what point does a growing and developing fetus take on sufficient attributes of a human being that it should be granted the conventional rights accorded persons? However, it is my conclusion that since higher-level brain activity begins in the second trimester, the fetus is not a person in the first trimester. With reasonable restrictions, including parental notification, women should be free to choose abortion in the first trimester. At the other end of the continuum, late trimester abortions that do not involve a clear and not-manufactured threat to the life of the woman, are infanticide. It can not be case, that it is murder to kill a child outside a womb, while his or her twin in the womb can be deliberately killed.

The above argument is in general agreement with the public conventional wisdom. While not willing to prohibit early abortions, a strong majority of Americans disapprove of and would feel comfortable banning “partial birth abortions.”

Whatever, your assessment of the above argument, RU-486 hastens the day when early, relatively safe, and simple procedures for abortions will be even more available. As a consequence of this ease, it is effectively impossible to prohibit abortions. Just like the war on drugs, if the political will to pass legislation to prohibit abortion could be mustered, safe abortions could easily go underground. While a prohibition would likely marginally reduce the number of abortions, it would do so at the cost of making otherwise law-biding people criminals and probably require further erosion of Fourth-Amendment protections.

The real challenge for anti-abortion advocates is not to seek anti-abortion legislation or even a constitutional amendment extending protections to the unborn from the moment of conception. Their real job is to persuade women, person-by-person to choose to bring their pregnancies to term. Their job is to provide comfort and resources to young women who feel overwhelmed with pregnancy and might otherwise choose abortion. Their job is to provide adoption options for women incapable of raising their children. In fairness, many anti-abortion groups already do this.

As biomedical technology matures, it becomes more and more difficult to prevent, as a practical matter, determined people from having abortions. If abortions are to be reduced, it will largely happen orthogonally to formal government action. The FDA action on RU-486 just makes clearer what has been evident for some time.

Polls to Follow

Sunday, October 1st, 2000

Virtually veryone has seen the historic 1948 photograph of Harry S. Truman grasping the front page of the Chicago Tribune that erroneously declared in large type “Dewey Beats Truman.” The paper wanted to be the first to publish and made the mistake of believing polls.After that polling embarrassment, there were recriminations and self-examination. Despite the fact that Truman won by two million votes, the story in the Electoral College was much closer. The switch of 30,000 votes, distributed the right way would have given an Electoral College victory to Dewey. Nonetheless, there was no excuse on the part of pollsters and the newspapers in the rush to judgment. Dewey, a liberal Republican, was popular in intellectual circles and perhaps the papers were letting their wishes get ahead of their practical assessments.

The mispredictions by Roper and Gallup were not the same as the problems with the Literary Digest. After polling its subscribers, by no means a representative cross section of voters, the publishers predicted that Alfred Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Landon lost all but two states and the Literary Digest went out of business. It is heartening that foolishness at least used to have consequences.

It turns out that the key mistake of the pollsters in 1948 was to stop polling two weeks before the election. No one considered the possibility of a last minute surge towards Truman. Some polls used data compiled as late as August 1948. In addition, pollsters were too cavalier in their treatment of undecided voters. They just allotted the undecided to the candidates in the same proportion as the decided vote. [1]

All modern pollsters know these lessons. However, the costs of conducting well thought out polls with statistically significant numbers of respondents tempt people into taking shortcuts. The Newsweek Poll is a modern example of how not to conduct a poll and as a consequence its results are volatile and not credible. That is why Newsweek can claim one week that Gore has a 14-point lead and a week later that Gore’s lead has plummeted to 2 percentage points. Even given the volatility of a complacent polity, this is too much of a change in too short a period of time. It is the sort of change one expects after a political convention, not a week where the big news is a minor release of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve.

A polling organization can pay for lists of registered voters. This cost money so Newsweek obtains less expensive, more general lists, and asks voters if they are registered. One does not always get truthful answers. Even more importantly reputable pollsters must take the time to cull from respondents, likely voters. Various organizations have different ways to do this. Basically they ask respondents if they voted in the last election. There is a strong correlation between voting in the past and future voting. However, if pollsters want to save money they will stick with registered voters or spend less time assessing whether a registered voter is likely to vote.

Pollsters must also consider at what time they query respondents. Newsweek stops its polling at 8:30 PM Eastern Time to save money. However, as a consequence, they only sample people who are at home during the day in Western Time Zone states. By contrast, the Battleground Poll, only polls Monday through Thursday because weekend activities make weekend polls notoriously unreliable.

One way to estimate future polling performance is past performance. In 1996, Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole by 8 percentage points. This was a significant popular vote win for Clinton, but far less than the 18-point margin predicted by CBS News and the 12-point difference found by the Harris, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, and ABC Polls. Two polls did conspicuously well, the Reuters/Zogby Poll and the Battleground Poll. They were within a percentage point of the final outcome.

The Zogby Poll is the brainchild of John Zogby who realized that many Conservatives do not like to respond to polls. His polling techniques attempt to compensate for this. The Battleground poll is a cooperative venture between Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. This week Zogby has Gore up by two points, while the Battleground Poll has Bush up by five points. Interestingly, the Battleground Poll still finds 21% of likely voters undecided.

It is clear that this election is still close. The Reuters/Zogby and the Battleground Polls appear to be the ones to watch.

1. Irwin Ross, The Loneliest Campaign, 1968. 245-252.